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The Past

Why the Electoral College exists (and isn’t going anywhere soon)

The history and reasoning behind the much-maligned Electoral College.

As many Americans are reeling in the aftermath of the rancorous U.S. Presidential election, calls and petitions are out to either get rid of the institution of Electoral College (EC) or turn some of the electors to vote for Hillary Clinton anyway, to reflect her victory in the popular vote. While such appeals clearly have a partisan origin, with dismayed Democrats looking for any way possible to get the results changed, it’s worthwhile to consider why the Electoral College was created. Whatever one might think of this American institution, the way the Clinton campaign neglected the purpose of Electoral College politics has contributed to its stunning defeat.

The Democrats have been particularly hurt by the existence of the Electoral College in recent history, losing the election of 2000 to George W. Bush and now the 2016 election to Trump, even while winning the popular votes. A big reason for this – Democrats get most of their support in large population centers and not rural areas. This would not have mattered if a simple majority across the whole country was enough, but as it is, Democrats need to pay attention to each state’s interests, if they want to win.

The Electoral College system gives a fixed number of votes to each state, linked to the size of its population. Each state gets the number of “electors” equal to its delegation to the Senate (2) and House of Representatives (ranging from 1 to 52). The total number of EC votes up for grabs is 538, with 270 being the number to reach to win the election.

The idea is that doing it this way people living in smaller, often more rural states, would get their voices heard too. If the U.S. had elections based on popular votes alone, the candidates would focus most of their attention on areas with large populations. Would it be fair that policies benefitting California or New York, where a big chunk of Americans lives, should be the main ones enacted, at the expense of policies that would focus, let’s say, on the Rust Belt states, who were key in deciding the current election?

On the flip side, the Electoral College creates a situation where candidates focus their attention mostly in a small number of “battleground” states instead of the whole country. Case in point – Clinton’s campaign.

Hillary Clinton didn’t even visit Wisconsin since the primaries (when she lost there to Bernie Sanders), becoming the first major party candidate since 1972 to not visit the state during the general election period. The Democrats relied on polling that told them they had the state locked up. In contrast, Donald Trump was in Wisconsin on November 1st, shaking hands and not believing polls. As the state was decided by just 27,000 in his favor, even after millions voted, it’s hard not see Clinton’s failure to participate in old-fashioned politics in the state as responsible for not turning out her voters there.

“We needed to see Hillary because she did not win in the primary,” said Anita Johnson of Citizen Action of Wisconsin.

Some go as far as to say that the Electoral College will always continue to help Republicans, with acclaimed author Joyce Carol Oates stating on Twitter that “electoral college will forever tip balance to rural/conservative/”white”/older voters –a concession to slave-holders originally.”

electoral college will forever tip balance to rural/conservative/”white”/older voters –a concession to slave-holders originally.

— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) November 9, 2016


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